by Jeanne Davant
Published in Life After 50 (October, 2015)
Millibo Art Theatre founders Birgitta De Pree and Jim Jackson assume their alter egos of Babette Matdiva and Mr. Art Guffaw.
It’s not often that you meet someone whose business card says, “Executive Director and Clown,” or someone whose job involves donning a curly red wig and transforming into a wacky alter ego called Babette Matdiva.
Those job descriptions apply to Jim Jackson and Birgitta De Pree, the talented cofounders of the Millibo Art Theatre (MAT).
The couple established the theater (originally known as the Manitou Art Theater) in 2001, with a mission to produce new, original performances for audiences in the Pikes Peak region. A few years later, they moved to another venue off 21st Street in Colorado Springs.
Since 2013, the company has been housed in a former church at 1626 S. Tejon St., just across from the redeveloped Ivywild School. With its soaring ceilings and seating that brings the audience into intimate contact with the performers, the lovingly remodeled church offered the MAT the opportunity to present new and different forms of entertainment, such as aerial circus performances and presentations that involve use of multimedia to tell stories.
“The people who owned Ivywild School also owned the church,” Jackson says. “They wanted it to be part of the development going on here, and they didn’t want to make it a restaurant or nightclub.”
As they open their third season at the new venue, Jackson and De Pree are expanding the concept of what theater can be.
“We would very much like to have this theater become known nationally as a place for new work so that theater artists from around the country will come here to make it,” Jackson says. “An incubator space, where a creative team can come together without having to pay New York fees, is really critical to the development of theater arts. So many great shows never see the light of day.”
“You have this vision for the kind of work you want to do,” De Pree says. “Theater and good art generates and deepens conversation about community. That’s why we do this work. When an audience can’t speak after a performance, or you hear that roar of laughter, it’s deeply rewarding.”
Although the MAT presents one classic show each season—this season, it’s “The Importance of Being Earnest,” told in a new way—it focuses on original work that’s unfamiliar to local audiences. Take, for example, “Stick Guns,” a dark satire Jackson created about growing up in the shadow of the maximum-security prison in Canon City.
“I play myself as a young boy of 10, a high school student, a character who narrates and ties together all the scenes and a couple of other comic characters that are tied in to my childhood but more from my imagination,” Jackson says.
Although the play is packed with laughs, it tackles series topics like guns and war, “but in an off-the-wall way,” he says.
Jackson left Canon City after graduating from high school. While studying psychology at Saint Louis University, he started studying with a mime teacher.
“We had a little company of three performers, and we started making money doing performances,” he says. “That was a real eye-opener.”
An overseas trip during his college years introduced Jackson to European circuses and amazing clowns. By the time he returned, he’d decided that’s what he wanted to do.
“Stick Guns,” which runs from Oct. 8 through 25, is definitely a show for adults, but theatergoers of all ages will enjoy “Ode to an Ode,” a new take on the story of Cyrano de Bergerac. Created by Jessica Robblee and Mitch Slevc from Buntport Theater Company in Denver, the 50-minute production is packed with action and poetry, and will appeal to children. After the performances, kids are invited to hang around for milk, cookies and fun activities.
“Ode to an Ode” will be performed at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Oct. 3 and 1 and 3 p.m. Oct. 4.
Patrons of all ages get into the spirit of a performance at the Millibo Art Theatre. The venue, set in a renovated church, provides excellent acoustics and views from every seat.
Jackson and De Pree wear many hats as well as many faces to make the theater work. Besides staging their own productions, they book shows and performers from all over the world, present workshops for everyone from kids ages 4 to 6 to adults who want to learn from master artists and handle the business of marketing and fundraising to support all of the MAT’s activities. De Pree also teaches drama and performs at venues throughout the community.
Their schedules are busy, but Jackson and De Pree never lose sight of their primary constituents—the creators and performers of new and different work, and their audiences.
During November, they will present the Soloworks Festival, a series of three shows that includes “Gary Busey’s One-Man Hamlet.” In that production, New York actor, writer and producer David Carl embodies the exaggerated persona of Busey performing the beloved Shakespeare play—with some hilarious adaptations and an improvised Q&A session at the end.
The festival also features The Pigeon Show, a comedic production by Ronlin Foreman, master teacher and director at the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, Calif. The presentation is described as “a tour de force as the robust humor of the Commedia dell’arte meets the terror of the grotesque.”
Also in November, the MAT will present “Burning,” a kinetic, semi-comic romp that pokes barbed fun at climate change, apocalyptic movies and the trivial tasks that preoccupy is while the planet burns. The show is written and performed by New York author, teacher and actor Heather Harpham.
The challenge, Jackson says, is to present that work in a way that audiences can relate to and appreciate. There may be elements in the shows that are surprising or shocking, but they are always in service to the story.
“Over the years, Jim and I have found that we’ve become personally invested in our patrons,” De Pree says. “When they come in, we really want to make them feel comfortable—we feed them chocolate.”
For more information about the fall season and to subscribe or purchase tickets, please visit www.themat.org.